From the Oral History Center Director: February 2021

From the Oral History Center Director

At the Oral History Center, spring begins in mid-January. Usually for OHC staff this means longer lines for morning coffee and scarce parking spots becoming rarer still. While we’re not experiencing these early signs of spring in 2021, we are looking forward to another early seasonal ritual: our annual Introduction to Oral History Workshop

Amanda Tewes on interviewing methodology
Amanda Tewes on remote interviewing, remotely

This year the workshop will differ from those we’ve hosted in the past in two key ways: it will be hosted remotely, so that we remain safely socially-distanced with the added benefit of making is accessible to those who don’t live nearby; the second difference is that it will be held over two days (Friday March 5 and Saturday March 6) to better accommodate those who are in not in the same time zone as Berkeley. 

In addition to the slight changes in format this year, OHC faculty will focus more on the practice of remote interviewing. When the pandemic struck about this time last year, we put a hold on our almost-always-in-person oral histories and dedicated ourselves to a study of how we might conduct our interviews remotely while still establishing good rapport with narrators and capturing quality audio and video in our recordings. By August we optimistically put our toes back in the oral history waters by recommencing with our interviews. We’ve learned a great deal in the six plus months (and suffered no major tragedies) so we’re eager to share what we’ve discovered. Although we are all looking forward to the day when in-person interviews are once again the norm, we also recognize that remote interviewing now has a place in our work going forward — and we suspect you’ll want to know about this practice. 

Registration is now open for the Introductory Workshop as well as for the Advanced Oral History Institute, held every August. We look forward to seeing you (virtually!) and together pursuing oral history in this strange new world.

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director

 


Of Molecules & Oral History: Script Review of NOVA’s “Beyond the Elements”

On March 12, 2020, an email arrived asking me to review three final scripts for the science series NOVA, the most-watched prime time science series on television with nearly five-million weekly viewers. Nearly a year later in February 2021, I’m delighted to see those NOVA episodes premier on PBS as the three-part series “Beyond the Elements.” The first episode focused on molecular Reactions, the next on virtually Indestructible molecules, and the third episode explored molecules of Life. Watching these episodes and reading my name in the credits as a “Science Advisor” for NOVA was thrilling.

I’m honored and still surprised to be listed here as a “Science Advisor” to the NOVA episode “Beyond the Elements: Reactions,” which aired on PBS on February 3, 2021.

But let’s be honest: after this past year, I’m delighted to have thus-far survived the pandemic and everything else that 2020 threw at us! From shelter-in-place to shuttered businesses, from Zoom meetings to elbow-bump greetings, from wild fires to fascism, and from righteous calls for racial justice to right-wing mobs denigrating our democracy, it’s been one hell of a year. Watching these NOVA episodes on PBS offered me a reminder of all that we’ve experienced since March 2020 when I received that email to review NOVA’s final scripts. Reflecting on this past year, I now see how working on those NOVA episodes helped me to muddle through that difficult time last spring. It re-inspired my fascination with science as well as my passion for oral histories with wondrous people, several of whom do the fascinating work of science. Reviewing those scripts also helped me imagine a future beyond the then all-consuming pandemic.

What are your memories of March 2020? Mine are saturated in fear. I recall dizzying levels of anxiety. Focused concentration felt nearly impossible. So much seemed unknown in March 2020, but we knew enough to be scared. We knew a novel virus that emerged in China was spreading rapidly around the world, and especially, by then, throughout the Bay Area here. We knew of no medical treatment to stop its spread or its effects. And we knew many people would not survive this new disease. For me, fear of what we did know as well as what we did not know felt crippling. Yet in my inbox appeared that email reminding me quite kindly of my earlier agreement to continue reviewing and advising on these three NOVA scripts. They asked: would I be able to return my reviews in the next two weeks? I thought: would my family and I even be alive in two weeks? At least, that’s where my mind was at in March 2020. Even so, I agreed to return my edits as quickly as I could—perhaps as a kind of pandemic denial, a naive attempt to reclaim normalcy.

As it happened, reviewing those scripts was both interesting and inspiring. Interesting, of course, because NOVA’s episodes of “Beyond the Elements” are captivating. The shows build from NOVA’s earlier special episodes on hunting atomic elements with these new episodes exploring the key molecules and chemical reactions that have shaped and continue to shape our lives and the universe as we know it. David Pogue hosts these episodes in his adventurous and cheeky way with excellent demonstrations and explanations by leading scientists, all accompanied by beautiful graphics and special effects. These stories about nature’s most fascinating molecular interactions are delightful, as are the scientists themselves who tell those stories.

To my surprise, reviewing those scripts last spring also gave me hope and helped lift me out of my initial, deep COVID despair. After prior years of commenting on and reviewing iterations of scripts for “Beyond the Elements,” that last round of edits in March 2020 arose at a difficult time. But that work helped ground me with a higher purpose and a commitment to others. It enabled my imagining of a future when this NOVA series would finally broadcast to millions of viewers. It helped move me beyond my immediate fears during that harrowing March of 2020. And it helped me, as an oral historian, to re-engage in our sacred project of building knowledge and sharing it through engaging narratives.

Upon submitting my review of the NOVA episodes, I found renewed purpose for sharing our own delightful stories about science as told by our fascinating oral history narrators. My colleagues in the Oral History Center all re-committed to our ongoing projects that spring and summer. Pandemic notwithstanding—very much in spite of it—we adjusted to our newly required remote-working situations, and we adapted our work flows, our fundraising, and our interviewing to not just survive this pandemic, but to find and create meaning during it. And through our collaborations, we even finalized a few of our own oral histories that, like NOVA’s “Beyond the Elements,” explore the interactions of molecules.

Michael R. Schilling stands before a pyrolysis–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (or Py-GC/MS) instrument used to separate and identify molecules in art samples at the Getty Conservation Institute. (April 2019)

By August of 2020, we published my fifteen-hours-long interview with Alexis T. Bell, the Dow Professor of Sustainable Chemistry in UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who is a world-renowned leader in catalysis and chemical-reaction engineering.  In September 2020, Paul Burnett published his detailed oral history with John Prausnitz, a professor since 1955 in Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who helped pioneer the field of molecular thermodynamics. And in October of 2020, we published my oral history with Michael R. Schilling, a chemist in Los Angeles at the Getty Conservation Institute who specializes in new and complex methods for analyzing the molecules in materials used by artists and art conservators.

My proud parents watched NOVA’s episode “Beyond the Elements: Indestructible” in Florida on February 10, 2021, and my mother shared her photo of the Science Advisor credits.

For me, that work last spring on NOVA’s “Beyond the Elements” helped me discover a way to move beyond the pandemic. It helped refocus my privilege and pleasure in recording, preserving, and sharing the life stories of our oral history narrators. And while I wish our struggles with this ongoing pandemic were over, I’m very pleased to see all that we’ve accomplished this past year in the Oral History Center. Back in March 2020, when reviewing those final scripts for NOVA, I imagined the episodes would eventually premier at a time when the world had returned to “normal,” whatever that meant. As it happened, the episodes’ premiers in February 2021 occurred amidst our continued pandemic, which has lasted so long it seems to have become our new normal. Even if our slow and sad dance with COVID-19 continues, I’m very pleased to have seen “Beyond the Elements” broadcast on PBS and to be listed as a “Science Advisor.” And I’m equally grateful for the lessons those episodes taught me, both about the science of molecular interactions but especially on the importance of meaningful endeavors during difficult times.

— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD

Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library


Announcing Dates for 2021 OHC Educational Programs

The Oral History Center is pleased to announce that applications are now open for the 2021 Introductory Workshop and Advanced Institute!

The OHC is offering online versions of our educational programs this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

The Introductory Workshop will held over two days on March 5-6, 2021.

The 2021 Introduction to Oral History WorkshopOHC historian Shanna Farrell leading the Spring 2015 Intro to Oral History Workshop will be held virtually via Zoom over two days on Friday, March 5, from 12–3 p.m. and Saturday, March, 6 from 9 a.m.–1.p.m. Pacific Time. Applications for this workshop are open here and will be accepted through February 16, 2021. Space is limited so apply early to ensure a spot.

The two-day day introductory workshop tuition is $200 and is designed for people who are interested in an introduction to the basic practice of oral history. The workshop serves as a companion to our more in­-depth Advanced Oral History Summer Institute held in August.

This workshop focuses on the “nuts-­and-­bolts” of oral history, including methodology and ethics, practice, and recording. It will be taught by our seasoned oral historians and include hands­-on practice exercises. Everyone is welcome to attend the workshop. Prior attendees have included community-­based historians, teachers, genealogists, public historians, and students in college or graduate school.

The Advanced Institute will be held from August 9-13, 2021.

The OHC is offering an online version of our one-week advanced institute on the methodology, theory, and practice of oral history. This will take place via Zoom from August 9-13, 2021. Applications will be accepted through July 16, 2021. Apply now!

photo

The cost of the Advanced Institute has been adjusted to reflect the online nature of this year’s program. This year’s cost has been adjusted to $550. See below for details about this year’s institute.

The institute is designed for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, university faculty, independent scholars, and museum and community-based historians who are engaged in oral history work. The goal of the institute is to strengthen the ability of its participants to conduct research-focused interviews and to consider special characteristics of interviews as historical evidence in a rigorous academic environment.

We will devote particular attention to how oral history interviews can broaden and deepen historical interpretation situated within contemporary discussions of history, subjectivity, memory, and memoir.

Overview of the Week

The institute is structured around the life cycle of an interview. Each day will focus on a component of the interview, including foundational aspects of oral history, project conceptualization, the interview itself, analytic and interpretive strategies, and research presentation and dissemination.

Instruction will take place online from 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Pacific Time, with breaks woven in. There will be three sessions a day: two seminar sessions and a workshop. Seminars will cover oral history theory, legal and ethical issues, project planning, oral history and the audience, anatomy of an interview, editing, fundraising, and analysis and presentation. During workshops, participants will work throughout the week in small groups, led by faculty, to develop and refine  their projects.

Participants will be provided with a resource packet that includes a reader, contact information, and supplemental resources. These resources will be made available electronically prior to the Institute, along with the schedule.

Applications and Cost

The cost of the institute is $550. OHC is a soft money research office of the university, and as such receives precious little state funding. Therefore, it is necessary that this educational initiative be a self-funding program. Unfortunately, we are unable to provide financial assistance to participants. We encourage you to check in with your home institutions about financial assistance; in the past we have found that many programs have budgets to help underwrite some of the costs associated with attendance. We will provide receipts and certificates of completion as required for reimbursement.photo

Read Amanda Tewes’s recap of the 2020 session here.

Read Q&A with Institute Alums Julia Thomas, Alex Vassar, Alec O’Halloran, Kelly Navies, Meagan Gough, Nicole Ranganath, and Marc Robinson.

Questions?

Please contact Shanna Farrell at sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu with any questions.


From the OHC Director: December 2020

From the Oral History Center Director, December 2020

Resilience is one of those words that the Transcendentalists would Capitalize — and I’m good with that. Oxford Languages (which publishes the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary) offers two main definitions of Resilience:

  1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness and 
  2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity. 

Strength and flexibility. Google analytics has an interesting tool that proposes to show the prevalence of word use over the centuries. For “Resilience” it finds notable upsurges in the Great Depression, in the wake of 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a word we turn to with aspiration in difficult times. I’ll bet that we’ll see a marked increase in 2020, this difficult year of years, with a global pandemic, unrest in the streets, and a nation starkly divided. 

resilienceWhile the word is often used in an aspirational way, to motivate and inspire, when I use it here, it is a fair and accurate description for the perspective and work of the remarkable staff and student employees of the Oral History Center in 2020. The year began with optimism but also challenges — we knew we had our work cut out for us with a large docket of projects to complete alongside the ever-present pressure of being a self-funding research program. Then, by late January, ominous clouds appeared on the horizon and we soon learned that vigorous hand-washing wasn’t going to stop the approaching storm. Not knowing if we’d return to the office in two weeks or … two years … we moved our operations online and became familiar with Zoom — as did most of the world. I’ll admit that those first weeks were difficult, rife with uncertainty and worry, so our virtual staff meetings focused on simply checking in with one another. And I remain thankful for having a group of smart, concerned, and level-headed colleagues to converse with in those early days of isolation. They made that time bearable and helped give me direction as head of the office. Notably, I recognized their Resilience and their readiness to continue to do the work that they are so passionate about. 

When it became clear that we weren’t returning to the office anytime soon but that we weren’t quite ready to conduct oral histories virtually (something we always advised against “if at all possible” when we teach best practices), we turned our attention to other important tasks. Shanna Farrell, Amanda Tewes, and Roger Eardley-Pryor each contributed to our ad hoc podcast season, “Coronavirus Relief,” which was less about documenting the virus than about ways in which we were seeking relief from the emotional toll of it. Amanda and Roger, working with stellar Berkeley undergrad Miranda Jiang, completed a project begun pre-pandemic and released the excellent podcast/performance piece, “Rice All the Time.” 

The Oral History Center is perhaps a more complex operation than might be apparent from the outside. A massive amount of work goes into the creation of the oral history interviews that you read and/or view on our website. There is of course project development, research, and videography, but there is also managing the complex process of creating, editing, and preparing transcripts that often run several hundred pages and can include forewords, photographs, and multiple appendices. In essence, we’re a small press publishing house that produces all original content. Two years ago we began the process of redesigning and then documenting this back-end operation and that process not only continued but accelerated during the course of this work-from-home year. Communications Manager Jill Schlessinger, with an eye for detail and keen awareness of what needs to be done, helped build this structure, drew up its plans, and then made it work by implementing a new online project management software solution. Likewise, Office Manager David Dunham contributed documentation of the technical side of our work (creating new transcript templates, digitizing analog recordings, writing metadata, etc.) during this time; moreover, he innovated by finding work-arounds for tasks usually done in person that now had to be done remotely. This behind the scenes work is plainly evident in this newsletter, with its abundance of newly released oral histories, completed with the necessary aid of this process during the pandemic. 

As it became clear that in-person meetings would largely be prohibited for the foreseeable future, we adopted the spirit of flexibility and resolved to bring the operation fully online and conduct interviews remotely. Paul Burnett and Roger spent many hours studying and testing various options and came up with a workable solution — Paul even hosted an online tutorial which was attended by hundreds and is now available online. We began conducting remote interviews in August and have conducted close to 200 hours of recordings already! If that doesn’t indicate Resilience, I don’t know what does. As one of those interviewers who has benefited from Paul’s research, I can attest that it works; while remote interviewing isn’t the same as in-person interviews, I’ve learned it is still possible to gain a similar sense of familiarity and intimacy as in person. Even more important: all of these essential stories are getting preserved, the importance of this is glaring in the face of the fact that well more than 300,000 Americans will have died of this dreaded virus by year’s end. 

The above is clear evidence of the Resilience of the remarkable staff and student employees of the Oral History Center but it doesn’t end there, not by a long shot. Rather than let their student employees go unemployed, David and Jill have devoted many hours to keeping them busy doing important tasks and allowing them to maintain their income. Todd Holmes, returning to the office in July after caring for his wife who sadly passed away, has finished up a number of outstanding projects, including the oral history of Chicano/a Studies and a set interviews with and about esteemed Yale scholar James C. Scott. Shanna was determined to forge ahead with our annual Advanced Oral History Summer Institute, changed by its virtuality but also by the fact that we had a record number of applicants and attendees. Amanda launched the new Women in Politics Oral History Project with a well-attended online panel discussion that featured Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, former SF City Attorney Louise Renne, and Pittsburgh City Councilmember Shanelle Scales-Preston. Paul with Jill’s considerable assistance launched our new educational resources pages (a space you’ll want to watch for exciting developments in 2021). Jill kept our communications program running and robust and thus helped spread word of this great work far and wide. We submitted three major grant applications (fingers crossed!). And, last but not least, Shanna kept this newsletter going with several content-packed releases.

When we look back at 2020 and see that almost predictable upsurge in the frequency of “Resilience,” I’ll know that this word is not only an apt descriptor — toughness and flexibility — for people’s aspirations during difficult times but also an accurate description of how we persevered and rose above to achieve something of real value. Finally, I want to offer my profuse gratitude to our many friends, sponsors, and partners and to Amanda, David, Jill, Paul, Roger, Shanna, and Todd, for making 2020 truly a story of Resilience. 

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center

 

Read more about what we’ve been doing, listen to our podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

Oral History Center Staff’s Top Moments of 2020

Podcast Season: Coronavirus Relief

Podcast: Rice All the Time? 

Remote Interviewing Tips and Tutorial

Chicano Studies Project

Women in Politics Project

Women in Politics Panel Discussion

Educational Resources: AIDS and Epidemics Curriculum

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

 


Oral History Center Staff’s Top Moments of 2020

The year 2020 has been challenging and tumultuous. However, there have been bright spots as the Oral History Center transitioned to working remotely and conducting interviews over Zoom. We wanted to take a moment to reflect on what has brought us joy and given us strength as we leave 2020 behind.

OHC

Amanda Tewes, Interviewer/Historian:

This year has certainly created many challenges for me—as an interviewer and as a person—but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the resiliency and creativity of my colleagues and the field of oral history as a whole. For example, Roger Eardley-Pryor and I worked with UC Berkeley undergraduate Miranda Jiang from 2019 through summer 2020. Miranda spent months researching and writing an original oral history performance for our 2020 Commencement, only to find that the pandemic had eliminated the potential for an in-person event. After regrouping, Miranda spent part of the summer transforming this performance intended for a live audience to a podcast episode on The Berkeley Remix (“Rice All the Time?”) complete with music and sound effects. This was not her original vision for the oral history performance, but she embraced the new media and its potential for reaching wider audiences, and is now working on an article about the challenges and benefits of this transition. We couldn’t be prouder!

Paul Burnett, Interviewer/Historian:

As a consequence of our adjustments to the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized more than ever that we all need to be better informed about the nature of epidemics and the social patterns that are revealed and exacerbated by them. With the help of our communications manager Jill Schlessinger and UDAR students Nika Esmailizadeh, Esther Khan, Corina Chen and Samantha Ready, we published curriculum content and frameworks for grade 11 students on epidemics in history. This curriculum makes use of our collection of interviews with those who confronted the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, along with our podcast on this subject. We are fundraising for a second round of interviews on the globalization of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well as a new project to develop curriculum materials on California communities and the environment based on our large collection of oral histories. Our collection is a fantastic resource for teachers, but we will continue to curate our content to make it easier to use in the classroom.

Roger Eardley-Pryor, Interviewer/Historian:

With silver bells ringing this holiday season, we search for silver linings amid the turmoil of 2020. My family’s continued health and safety remains that for which I’m most grateful, and both remain atop of our holiday wish list for you and yours. I’m also grateful and privileged to continue working at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center (OHC). In the spring of 2018, when I began work at the OHC, my daughter was just 4 months old. This December of 2020, she turns three. Back in March of 2020, with heightened fear of the spreading pandemic and just as the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders came down, I corresponded with Dr. Samuel Barondes, a medically trained scientist at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) whose research bridged the fields of psychiatry and molecular neuroscience. Sheepishly, I told Sam my transition to working from home in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, which I shared with my wife and our rambunctious two-year old, would delay my work on his oral history that we recorded the prior year. Sam, now in his eighth decade of vibrant life, remembered well living in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City with his own high-energy two-year-old. Ever the optimist and exuding compassion, Sam told me, “Someday, you’ll treasure these memories of this momentous time…As always, everything is an opportunity!” At that time, I had a hard time hearing Sam’s wisdom. Now, having survived 2020, I understand. Nothing was easy this past year, but, already, I cherish my many months at home working while also watching our young daughter learn and grow. And, despite the past year’s chaos, I’m pleased to have finally published my lengthy oral history interviews with Alexis T. Bell, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry; with Michael Schilling, a chemist and head of Materials Characterization at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles; and with Aaron Mair, a pioneer of environmental justice and the first Black president of the Sierra Club. In the coming year, I look forward to COVID vaccines, a new US President, and to completing additional oral histories long delayed by the pandemic, including Dr. Sam Barondes’s. I miss the intimacy and comradery of in-person meetings, of handshakes and hugs, of shared stories and raw laughter reverberating in a room, not filtered through a silicon chip. I hope to see you on the other side of this pandemic. From my family to all of yours, we wish you a happy, safe, and healthy holiday season, and may you know peace and justice in the new year.

roger and izzy

Jill Schlessinger, Communications Manager/Managing Editor:

There were many highlights this year in the areas of communications, oral history production, and process. It’s wonderful to work with my team of student editors, Ashley Sangyou Kim, JD Mireles, Jordan Harris, Lauren Sheehan-Clark, and Ricky Noel; communications assistant Katherine Chen, and research assistant Deborah Qu, and I want to thank them for their high-quality work and professionalism. The editorial team wrote discursive tables of contents and edited frontmatter and interviews for dozens of oral histories this year, among other projects. We contributed to the Berkeley Women 150 celebrations, including a collection guide to 225 oral histories with UC Berkeley women — alumnae, faculty, staff, administrators, and philanthropists; a Berkeley women oral history web page, and four articles highlighting the achievements of Berkeley women by our undergraduate research assistant Deborah Qu, about alumnae Janet Daijogo and Ida Louise Jackson, faculty Natalie Zemon Davis and Elizabeth Malozemoff, and Berkeley’s first dean of women, Lucy Sprague Mitchell. I launched a new project management tool to track our complex production process, with more than 100 steps, and our many other initiatives, making collaboration and tracking easier. The Smithsonian Magazine, KPIX-CBS, NPR, East Bay Yesterday podcast, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the movie, Crip Camp, winner of the Audience Prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, among others, featured our oral histories or interviews with our historians/interviewers. A personal highlight for me was writing the article “Never Forget? UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center documents memories of the Holocaust for researchers and the public,” in observance of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Todd Holmes, Interview/Historian:

One of my fondest memories this year at the OHC was our Advanced Summer Institute. Each year we host over 50 participants during this week-long event, teaching the ins and outs of oral history and helping the wide-range of attendees in developing their individual projects. Like so many activities on the Berkeley campus, however, Covid-19 forced us to come up with a safer alternative. Thanks to Shanna Farrell—the office’s longtime Advanced Summer Institute coordinator—we held the institute via Zoom with minimal bumps along the road, allowing us to connect with participants from around the world. Indeed, it was not uncommon to have participants from 3 or 4 different time zones in one meeting. It was an amazing experience, one that highlighted our interconnectedness, as well as what can be achieved with technology and teamwork.

Shanna Farrell, Interview/Historian:

This year has been a doozy. When the shelter-in-place order hit in March, we had to re-learn how to structure our days and focus on work while the world crumbled around us. Many of our projects paused while we collectively tried to regroup and design a path forward. To call this difficult, especially while constantly refreshing my newsfeed, is an understatement. So, I turned to one of my great loves: audio. We launched a series of special episodes of our podcast, The Berkeley Remix, called “Coronavirus Relief.” The intention was to bring stories from the field of oral history, things that had been on our mind, lessons from the past, and interviews that helped us get through, to find small moments of happiness. I served as the producer and editor of these episodes, even writing my own episodes, and worked with Amanda Tewes and Roger Eardley-Pryor, proving that remote collaboration was still possible. Making these seven episodes of The Berkeley Remix was one of my favorite parts of 2020, as it allowed me stay connected to my colleagues, gave me space to think about the value of oral history, and engage our audience during dark days.

relief episodes

Martin Meeker, Director:

Before joining the Oral History Center in 2003 as a postdoc, I had already read the Center’s interview with Willie Brown about his years as Speaker of the California Assembly. I held this up as the pinnacle of political oral history and resolved that one day I would conduct a follow-up and ask him about his two terms as San Francisco Mayor. In 2015 and 2016 the opportunity arose and I conducted a 10 hour oral history with Mayor Brown and I was thrilled with the results. And, finally, in 2020 the mayor gave his blessing for us to release this second volume of what is now a thorough and fascinating life history.

Mayor Brown


Aaron Mair: Sierra Club President 2015-2017, on Heritage, Stewardship, and Environmental Justice

New Sierra Club Oral History Project interview: Aaron Mair

Aaron Mair at the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter headquarters in Albany, New York (November 2018).

Aaron Mair is a pioneer in environmental justice and became the first African American president of the Sierra Club from 2015-2017. Mair, whose ancestors suffered enslavement, has dedicated much of his life to overturning the ongoing injustices experienced by Black Americans, including environmental racism. The Power of Place, Mutuality, and Interconnection all arose as important themes throughout Mair’s fifteen-hour oral history, which we conducted over five interview sessions in November 2018, first in Pickens County, South Carolina, and then in Albany, New York, where Mair lives. That week that Aaron Mair and I shared together became one of the most enlightening and powerful experiences in my life as an oral historian.

On the day we first met in South Carolina, just before his first interview session, Mair walked me through an unkept graveyard where his mother’s enslaved ancestors are buried. A few days later, on our final day of interviewing, we walked through snow across the Helderberg Escarpment that rises above the Hudson Valley in New York, near where Mair has lived most of his life. As he informed me, the Helderberg Escarpment is the site where, over 150 years earlier, a Southern slave-owner named Joseph LeConte studied geology with Louis Agassiz and nurtured notions of scientific racism. After the Confederacy collapsed, Joseph LeConte moved west to become a geology professor at UC Berkeley and co-founded the Sierra Club alongside John Muir in 1892. Nearly 125 years later, in 2015, Aaron Mair became the Sierra Club’s 57th president and its first African American president.

Aaron Mair at the site of the former ANSWERS (Albany New York Solid Waste to Energy Recovery System) incinerator in his majority-Black neighborhood of Arbor Hill in Albany, New York (November 2018).

Aaron Mair was born in November 1960. He completed PhD coursework in Political Science at the State University of New York at Binghamton University, and upon becoming a father, he departed as ABD to work for the New York State Department of Health in Albany, where he still works as an epidemiological-spatial analyst. By the late 1980s, Mair’s training in geographic information systems, his graduate readings in World Systems Theory, and his family’s experiences in civil rights and labor organizing all came together in Mair’s campaign to shut down the toxic ANSWERS (Albany New York Solid Waste to Energy Recovery System) incinerator in Arbor Hill, the majority Black neighborhood where Mair and his family lived. The ANSWERS incinerator, which burned trash to produce electricity for the Empire State Plaza where Mair worked, also produced toxic ash that blew directly onto Mair’s family and community. In 1998, after a decade-long battle to close the incinerator, Mair won a landmark $1.4 million settlement with New York state (his employer) for environmental racism. He then used those funds to further his intersectional environmentalism by founding two non-profit organizations: Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation, and the W. Haywood Burns Environmental Education Center. Through these organizations, Mair advocated further for environmental justice, including in the Clean Up the Hudson campaign that forced General Electric to dredge toxic PCBs from the Upper Hudson River.

Aaron Mair and Roger Grey with poster from the early 1990s for the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Fund (circa 2015).

In 1999, Mair joined the Sierra Club in a conscious effort to reform it from the inside. Years earlier, while still battling the toxic ANSWERS incinerator, Mair sought to partner with the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter in New York City. Instead, the all-white room of Sierra Club members rejected Mair’s overture and said, “Did you check with the NAACP?” However, Albany’s local Sierra Club group did scrounge up early support for Mair’s campaign. With gratitude, Mair vowed that once he successfully closed the ANSWERS plant, he would join the Sierra Club to ensure it would collaborate with communities of color. Upon joining the Sierra Club, Mair held leadership positions at every level, including as group chair, then chapter chair and environmental justice chair in the Atlantic Chapter in New York; as national chair of the Sierra Club’s Diversity Council and of its National Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships; as an elected member to the national Sierra Club board of directors; and as president of the Sierra Club from 2015-2017. Mair became instrumental in creating the Sierra Club’s new Department of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. Today, he continues to serve as a nationally elected member to the Sierra Club’s board of directors.

Zion McKenzie, Mair’s great-great maternal grandfather who brought his family from enslavement in South Carolina through emancipation to ownership of land that remains in Mair’s family today (photographed circa 1910).

For his Sierra Club Oral History Project interview, Mair insisted we conduct his first interview sessions at the Hagood Mill Historic Site in Pickens County, South Carolina, in part to connect his family’s heritage of enslavement, emancipation, and environmental stewardship there to the life of Confederate slave-owner, Sierra Club co-founder, and UC Berkeley professor Joseph LeConte. (In November 2020, UC Berkeley officially removed the name LeConte Hall from its Physics Department building on campus.) According to a historic marker at the Hagood Mill Historic Site, the mill was reconstructed in 1845 by James Hagood, a prominent “planter and merchant” in South Carolina, who served in the state’s House of Representatives. Nothing at the Hagood Mill Historic Site mentioned how Hagood’s money and influence derived from his family’s chattel enslavement of humans, including Aaron Mair’s ancestors. The Mill’s construction occurred shortly after the birth in 1844 of Zion McKenzie, Mair’s great-great maternal grandfather whom the Hagood family enslaved. During his time as Sierra Club president, Mair made that discovery of who, exactly, had enslaved his family after years of deep genealogical research. Documents and photographs from Mair’s genealogical research and his years of activism can be found in the appendix to his oral history.

Before Mair and I began recording his first interview session, he showed me another unaccounted legacy of his family’s history at the Hagood Mill Historic Site. Together, Mair and I visited the “slave section” of the Hagood cemetery in an unkept pocket of land directly next to the well maintained Hagood family cemetery. In contrast to the Hagood family’s ornate headstones and sarcophagi, replete with crosses for Confederate veterans and bounded by a wrought-iron fence, the graves of Mair’s enslaved ancestors were barely noticeable among the fallen leaves. They were marked only by unhewn river rocks set slightly askew as nameless headstones. In that moment, Mair spoke solemnly about the generations of lives lost to slavery, about its ongoing aftereffects, and about the power of public memorials, especially the impact of what is not memorialized.

First alter of the Golden Grove church and headstones of the enslaved outside of the Hagood family cemetery (November 2018).

Mair then pointed to a nearby collection of large stones stacked against a tree to form a roughshod alter. He named the alter as the site of the first Golden Grove Church, the later iterations of which Mair and his family still attend today. Mair spoke then about the importance of faith for his family, and he offered up a prayer before we returned to the Hagood Mill to begin his oral history. Much of Mair’s first interview that day recounted the evolution of his enslaved ancestors’ emancipation from human dominion to their sustainable stewardship of the land where, today, the homes of his South Carolina relatives and the Golden Grove Baptist Church still stand. Those stories about Mair’s ancestors helped to contextualize his own conceptions of environmental responsibility, which later inspired his pioneering work in environmental justice and his leadership within the Sierra Club.

Aaron Mair (in red shirt and hat) speaking as the founder and board president of Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation during the Clean Up the Hudson River campaign (circa 2000).

Mair and I completed his final oral history sessions in Albany, New York, in the historic and majority Black neighborhood of Arbor Hill where Mair lived and raised his daughters for many years. During his interviews in Albany, Mair shared stories of his intellectual awakenings in college, the beginnings of his civic and environmental activism in Albany, his pioneering work in the environmental justice movement, and his more-than-twenty-years of effort to help the Sierra Club build bridges across the civil rights, labor rights, and environmental rights movements. Just down the street from one of our interview locations, Mair pointed out the ominous smokestacks rising up from what once was the ANSWERS solid waste incinerator. Mair’s decade-long battle to stop that incinerator from spewing toxic ash onto his family and community changed his life. In the process, Mair became active on so many issues in Albany that it proved impossible for us to record all those stories. However, the patterns I saw in his activism included reclaiming open space for public use, demanding equal treatment by law, ensuring his community’s political voice was heard, fighting toxic pollution, and seeking just recompense from those who’ve done wrong. In many ways, Aaron Mair’s life history, and that of his family, reflect the Sierra Club’s own increased awareness and historical evolution to better incorporate equity, inclusion, and justice in its environmental efforts.

Aaron Mair at the Helderberg Escarpment just outside of Albany, New York (November 2018).

On our final day together, during his lunch break, Mair met me in the Helderberg Mountains just outside of Albany. A light snow blanketed the ground as we walked across the escarpment and looked over the Hudson Valley. The rock and fossil records at the Helderberg Escarpment are so extensive and well-exposed that the site became pivotal to the study of North American geology in the early nineteenth century. Charles Lyell, the foremost geologist of that era, read from his home in England the newest research then done on those rocks just outside of Albany. When Charles Darwin read Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33), it helped Darwin conceive of evolution as a slow process in which small changes gradually accumulate over time. While at the Helderberg Escarpment, Mair reiterated how, in the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph LeConte—a co-founder of Sierra Club in 1892 and a former slave-owner from South Carolina—conducted geological research at that very site with Harvard geologist and white supremacist Louis Agassiz. More than once that week, Aaron suggested how his recent presidency of the Sierra Club, when contextualized by his own life and heritage—including his family’s history of enslavement and emancipation—signified a kind of evolution for the Club, perhaps for the broader environmental movement. Hopefully, both. Mair and I concluded his oral history that evening with an epic interview session that lasted seven hours. We emerged to find Albany blanketed in four inches of fresh snow.

Marching for Climate Justice on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Pictured left to right: a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network; Alison Chin, former Sierra Club president; Bill McKibben, co-founder 350.org; Aaron Mair, then Sierra Club president in 2015.

By the time I landed back in San Francisco the following day, the then-deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, had already decimated the town of Paradise and, over the next week, continued scorching some 240 square miles of land, taking with it many people’s lives and livelihoods. Ash from that horrific fire rained down on my wife, myself, and our one-year-old daughter in Sonoma County, even though we lived more than 150 miles from the inferno. Smoke from the blaze made the Bay Area’s air quality the worst of any place on the planet and rose to levels federally designated as dangerous. The hazardous air and unavoidable soot falling on my family made me think of Mair’s efforts to stop the ANSWERS incinerator from raining toxic ash on his children. And it reminded me how current Sierra Club campaigns against climate change are, in some ways, efforts toward climate justice for us all, but especially for our children and Earth’s future generations.

Aaron Mair and oral historian Roger Eardley-Pryor at Mair’s family homestead near Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, November 2018.

Aaron Mair’s oral history is part of the Sierra Club Oral History Project, a longstanding partnership between the Sierra Club and the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library that began soon after the first Earth Day in 1970. For fifty years now, the Oral History Center has partnered with the Sierra Club to produce, preserve, and post for free online an unprecedented testimony of engagement in and on behalf of the environment, as told by well over one hundred volunteer leaders and staff members active in the Club for more than a century. However, few of those interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project share stories of the Club’s evolution toward environmental justice. The publication of Mair’s interview begins to fill that lacuna, and I hope we can record more powerful stories from Sierra Club members and staff leaders who, similarly, helped move the Club on issues of environmental justice. In his interview, Mair revealed how his life experiences and ancestry intersected with the Sierra Club’s evolving efforts on diversity, inclusion, and justice. Many more stories from that journey need to be shared. I’m deeply grateful Aaron Mair shared his story with me.

— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD

You can read Aaron Mair’s oral history here:

Aaron Mair, “Aaron Mair: Sierra Club President 2015-2017, on Heritage, Stewardship, and Environmental Justice” conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in 2018, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2020.

For related work in the Oral History Center’s renewed Sierra Club Oral History Project:

See our oral history of Michele Perrault, who became the first female president of the Sierra Club in its modern era, twice elected as national president from 1984 to 1986 and from 1993 to 1994.

See this post on Intersectional Progress through Women in the Sierra Club, which highlights research by Ella Griffith (UC Berkeley Class of 2020) on “Sierra Club Women” — an annotated bibliography of women’s oral histories conducted between 1973 and 2018 for the Sierra Club Oral History Project.


The Price of Place: Oral Histories of George S. Tolley and Howard R. Tolley

Narrator seated in front of video camera at his home in Chicago, IL
George S. Tolley at his home in Hyde Park, Chicago. Photo by Paul Burnett

This interview with University of Chicago economist George S. Tolley is the latest in our series of interviews with Chicago economists as part of the Economist Life Stories project. However, along with this twenty-hour interview, we are also releasing online for the first time the oral history with his father, Howard R. Tolley, first head of UC Berkeley’s Giannini Foundation, and chief of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (USDA) during the New Deal and World War II. This interview, conducted by Dean Albertson in the early 1950s, comes to us from the archives of the Columbia Oral History Project, which graciously granted permission for us to publish these interviews together.

Shows the narrator in conversation with heads of the USDA, late 1930s
Left to right: M.L. Wilson, Undersecretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, (seated), and Howard R. Tolley, Chief of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, 1938.
Photo courtesy of https://www.wikiwand.com/en/M._L._Wilson

These interviews will be of enormous importance to historians who are interested in the social and political contexts of the social sciences. Economists at the University of Chicago have been deeply involved in policy advocacy and policymaking since the beginning of World War II. Growing up in Washington during the Great Depression, with a father who was responsible for analyzing and providing solutions to Depression-era farming, George S. Tolley felt that economics was the calling of his generation: to figure out how to prevent such a calamity from ever happening again.

George completed his PhD at the University of Chicago with Theodore Schultz and D. Gale Johnson in the 1950s, and returned as faculty in the 1960s. Schultz was the impresario for the department during this period, bringing his ethic of service to the nation, along with many important contacts. G.S. Tolley was part of Schultz’s agriculture group at Chicago, in which many prominent economists researched problems of agricultural modernization, whether in the rural US or around the world. True to this spirit of service, Tolley became the Director of the Economic Development Division of the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture in 1964-65, and in 1974–75, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Tax Analysis of the US Department of the Treasury.

As an outgrowth of his research on resource use and farm labor migration, G.S. Tolley was in on the ground floor of two new research areas, urban economics and environmental economics, neither of which could be more topical today. He also consulted widely for federal, state, and municipal agencies on urban and environmental problems from the 1960s until the present day, both as an academic and in his capacity as CEO of his firm RCF Consulting, Inc. As agricultural economics became central to policymaking in developing countries, so too did urban economics, as megacities mushroomed across the globe, echoing the influence of the agriculture group in this domain. In the late 1980s and 90s, George also produced a seminal work on health economics, which moved the field to a broader view of the economics of wellness.

Social sciences emerged to identify, define, and address the social problems and challenges of the age of which they were a part. If we think of the ideal of science as a belief in the possibility of making knowledge that stands independently of the biases, instrumentation, and idiosyncrasies of observation and experiment, we can understand what the social scientist is up against. Notwithstanding the commitments of many social scientists to such an ideal, it’s impossible for them to escape the social context in which they operate. Both of these oral histories chronicle policy controversies and challenges, and the emergence and evolution of sub-disciplines to tackle particular social problems (low farm income, labor migration, housing inequality and urban sprawl, management of natural resources, or the management of an insurance-based health care system). And both economists focused on the economics of human geography, the price of proximity to markets, opportunities, amenities, and resources. But the larger pattern in both life histories is this: the higher the political stakes of an area of research, the greater the social scientist’s commitment to an ideal of value-free science, often out of sheer necessity. George S. Tolley’s basic approach in his career was humility before the complexity of economic and social phenomena. But that approach becomes a policy orientation in itself: careful analysis of blanket prescriptions or proscriptions, and an understanding of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned plans, an orientation he passed on to his many accomplished graduate students.


Kenneth Hamma: Antiquities and Technology at the Getty

Kenneth Hamma is a former employee of the J. Paul Getty Trust, where he held several positions, including associate curator of Antiquities and executive director of Digital Policy and Initiatives. He attended Stanford University and Princeton University, specializing in art and archaeology. Hamma taught at the University of Southern California, and became associate curator of Antiquities at the Getty Museum in 1987. He then held several positions in information technology at the Getty from 1997 to 2008 before consulting in the same field. 

Hamma’s oral history is part of an ongoing series of interviews for the J. Paul Getty Oral History Project. As Hamma worked in many positions in various parts of the Getty Trust for over twenty years, he had a unique perspective about the growth of the institution and its various challenges.

Hamma began his professional career in academia, teaching archaeology and art history at the University of Southern California while also participating in a years-long dig of the ancient city of Marion in Cyprus. Yet, he made connections with the Getty Museum while teaching in the Los Angeles area, and pursued a position as associate curator in the Antiquities Department in 1987, where he worked for ten years. During this time, Hamma helped grow the Getty’s antiquities collection through acquisitions, and even managed a program that brought classical Greek theater like The Odyssey to life at the Getty Villa.

But eventually, Hamma felt it was time to move on and to pursue his interests in information technology. Listen to Hamma describe this professional transition at the Getty:

Hamma’s work in information technology led to him several positions at the Getty: head of Collections Information Planning at the J. Paul Getty Museum (1997-1999); assistant director for Collection Information at the J. Paul Getty Museum (1999-2004); senior advisor for Information Policy at the J. Paul Getty Trust (2002-2004); and executive director of Digital Policy and Initiatives at the J. Paul Getty Trust (2004-2008). In these positions, Hamma fought to create a more cohesive approach to technology and systems Trust-wide at the Getty, as well as for open access to information about its collections. Part of these challenges included changing the Getty’s approach to copyright management. Hamma sometimes faced pushback in allowing more open licensing for the Getty’s collection, but he explained,

“I was always of the opinion that the more open the Museum was, the better…what that meant to me changed over time, partly as I thought about it more but partly also as technology provided opportunities to be more open and more fluid with information. It seemed to me that it was the responsibility of the Museum to take advantage of those in every way that it possibly could.” 

Hamma retired in 2008, and worked as an independent consultant for a decade, extending the ideas about information technology management he developed at the Getty to other arts institutions around the country. During his more than twenty years at the Getty, Hamma brought new ideas and changing technologies to the forefront of the Getty’s work, building the foundations for the institution’s current embrace of open content for arts education and research.

To learn more about Kenneth Hamma’s work at the Getty, check out his oral history!


Tradition and Innovation in the J. Paul Getty Trust Paintings Conservation Department

One of the pleasures of interviewing for an ongoing project such as the J. Paul Getty Trust Oral History Project is being able to draw connections between ideas and moments in time, and to the individuals who helped shape them. The Paintings Conservation Department at the Getty Trust is one such example. The development of this department mirrors the growth of the Getty from a small museum perched above the Malibu coast to its current iteration as a large organization with international reach. Over the last several years, I have been delighted to interview three people who not only saw this transformation and its impact on the Paintings Conservation Department, but helped build it up: Yvonne Szafran, Mark Leonard, and Joyce Hill Stoner.

Yvonne Szafran was the head of the Paintings Conservation Department from 2010 until her retirement in 2018. She joined the Getty Museum in 1976 through a work-study program in the Antiquities Conservation Department. In 1978, she became a conservator in the Paintings Conservation Department. (Yvonne Szafran: Forty Years of Paintings Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum)

Mark Leonard was the head of the Paintings Conservation Department from 1998 until his retirement in 2010. He worked as an assistant conservator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before joining the Getty as an associate conservator of paintings in 1983. (Mark Leonard: Building New Traditions in Paintings Conservation at the Getty, 1983-2010)

Joyce Hill Stoner is a professor of material culture at the University of Delaware, Director of the University of Delaware Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, and painting conservator for the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation. Dr. Stoner has a long history with the J. Paul Getty Trust, including as a visiting scholar to and traveling with the Paintings Conservation Department in the 1980s, working as the managing editor of Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, and serving on committees with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). (Joyce Hill Stoner: My Life in Art Conservation and Intersections with the Getty)

Through memories that span four decades, these interviews help illuminate the passion, skill, and vision that conservators at the Getty Trust have used to treat some of the world’s finest paintings, and to grow the Paintings Conservation Department into a world-renowned operation.

The years after Mr. Getty’s 1976 passing and the subsequent money his will provided his namesake museum proved to be a heady time to be at the Getty. Szafran recalled that the new capital offered unique opportunities for conservators that they might not have found elsewhere. She explained,

“They were the times at the Getty when the money finally came, acquisitions started rolling in, shall we say. It was such an exciting time to be at the Getty because new paintings were being acquired frequently. So as the youngest member of the Department, I was given great things to work on, just because we were so busy.”

Certainly money opened doors for the Paintings Conservation Department, but in thinking about what made it unique amongst its counterparts at other museums, Szafran, Leonard, and Stoner all spoke about its philosophical approach to conservationone which differed from the “objective” way many taught art conservation in the mid-century United States. Listen as Leonard explains this subjective approach, 

This approach to art conservation started to take shape in the mid-century United States, thanks in part to the influence of European practitioners like John Brealey at the Metropolitan Museum of Artwho also happened to be Leonard’s mentor. This style was also reinforced by Andrea Rothe, the former head of the Getty Paintings Conservation Department (1981-1998).

Another experience all three narrators shared was joining the Department for research trips that Rothe planned to Italy in the late 1980s. Stoner, who was already working at Winterthur, joined Rothe, Szafran, Leonard, and longtime Getty conservator Elisabeth Mention on one of these trips. Listen as Stoner recalls these trips that Rothe arranged:

Stoner and the others observed firsthand the differing conservation styles in Italy and engaged in conversation about what approach worked best for not only the Getty, but also for new students in the field. Stoner was actively teaching at Winterthur at the time, and discussed returning to the Getty for specialty training a few years later, videotaping the sessions in order to share them with her students. This willingness to invite non-staff conservators to such events indicates the importance of the Getty in fostering continuing education among its own staff and disseminating these ideas into the rest of the field.

These research trips to Italy also demonstrate that the Getty had an interest in cultivating talent, especially in the Paintings Conservation Department. This may be why a core group of four conservatorsRothe, Szafran, Leonard, and Mentionstayed together for around twenty years.

One thing that became apparent in the course of these interviews is that not all museums have in-house paintings conservation departments. And the fact that the Getty has supported this department from the beginning points to a dedication to succeeding in the field and to support the growing paintings collection in the Getty Museum. 

During his tenure as head of the Department (1998-2010), Leonard continued to think about how to build public support for this work and expand international partnerships, especially in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the new access to museums and art collections to the West. His solution was to establish the Paintings Conservation Council. Listen as Leonard discusses his decision to create the Council,

Before joining the Getty Trust Oral History Project, my understanding of art conservation was limited. But in the course of interviewing Szafran, Leonard, and Stoner, I learned not only about treatment and techniques, but also about the important role the Paintings Conservation Department plays in the Getty Trust. Further, an in-depth look at this department underscores the transformation of the Getty into an international arts organization, as well as the people, talent, and innovation that pushed it forward.

To learn more about the Paintings Conservation Department at the Getty Museum, check out oral history interviews with Yvonne Szafran, Mark Leonard, and Joyce Hill Stoner!


Oral History and Political Organizing

By Eleanor Naiman

Eleanor Naiman on a Zoom Call
Eleanor Naiman (middle of top right square) on a victory Zoom call with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

In 2020 Eleanor Naiman was a Biden-Harris campaign field organizer for the Nebraska Second Congressional District, working remotely to gain an electoral vote for Democrats. She is a recent graduate of Swarthmore College and completed an internship for the Bay Area Women in Politics Project with the Oral History Center in summer 2019.

Each of the 4,150 phone calls I made as a field organizer with the Biden-Harris campaign had a clear and stated purpose: to establish a voter’s support of Democratic candidates and to convince them to volunteer at a virtual phone bank. A detailed script drafted by the Biden HQ provided the framework for each conversation. Designed to maximize efficiency and recruitment shifts, the script encouraged organizers to get to a “hard ask” as quickly as possible: “We have phone banks at 4:30pm Central every day this week,” I’d explain. “Can I put you down for Monday and Wednesday?”

The direct nature of our recruitment script initially threw me off. My summer as an intern for the Oral History Center’s Bay Area Women in Politics Project taught me to take a subtler approach to questioning. I learned to ask open-ended questions that allowed narrators to tell their stories with authenticity and autonomy. I knew to prioritize the needs of my narrator over my own research objectives, working collaboratively to construct a life story that felt true to both history and memory.

In those early days of campaign work, I longed for the opportunity to sit down with each voter, as I had at the OHC, equipped with pages of notes of background research and confident in the strength of the relationship we’d built over pre-interviews and email correspondence. I missed the warmth and familiarity of in-person conversation; due to the nature of field organizing in a pandemic, the entirety of my conversations with voters took place over the phone or on Zoom. My conversations with voters seemed unpredictable and somewhat chaotic. Parents answered as they shuttled their kids to school, retirees picked up with the afternoon news blaring on a nearby TV, wives declined on behalf of husbands on the farm and in the field. I never knew where a conversation with a voter would take me. Would they hang up abruptly, perhaps after a quick jab at my candidates or an angry request that I take them off the list?  Or would they linger on the phone, desperate for some form of human connection after months of pandemic-imposed isolation?

The conversations that fell somewhere between those two poles posed the greatest challenge. Somehow, in the five minutes allotted for each conversation, I needed to transform a weary voter into an eager volunteer. I found myself increasingly relying on oral history methodology to quell my anxiety about cold calls and hard asks. After all, I reminded myself, despite their obvious differences in form and purpose, an oral history interview and a voter outreach call posed the same basic problem: how to build trust through dialogue. I found myself listening as diligently as I had at the Oral History Center, noting and adopting the tone and lilt of a voter’s voice, sometimes even subconsciously, in an attempt to build rapport before my voter’s interest waned and I lost a potential volunteer. This meant performing in a matter of seconds the careful assessment of intersubjectivity I’d studied as an OHC intern. How did the voter perceive me? How did I see them? I knew that each conversation would require a balance of give and take, leaving both of us changed by its end. To a grandmother, alone in an assisted living facility, I became a granddaughter, or perhaps a memory of the political organizing and idealism of her youth. To a young voter, I became a friend and peer, commiserating about classwork and college stress.  I reminded myself to that even on this small scale, the quality of my listening mattered just as much as the efficiency of my hard ask. Returning over and over to the tools and practices of oral history, I built relationships with voters whose dedication to change and hope for the future fueled my long nights and countless hours on Zoom. Together, we formed a community that ultimately flipped Nebraska’s second congressional district.

I came to appreciate the constant thrill of this sort of speed-interview. By November, I had learned to love catching a voter in motion, getting a peek into homes far from my own, and hearing anecdotes of daily struggle, loss, and hope that consistently reinforced the importance of this work. As I sat at my desk in my pandemic office, cut off from the world yet never closer to it, I felt an immense gratitude for the thousands of people who had let me into their lives. It was the same sense of awe and of appreciation that made me fall in love with oral history in the first place.